It’s called rejection. So many of us live our whole lives trying to avoid it. But we don’t even really understand what it is.

Did you know there’s an emotion so painful that taking Tylenol can actually help lessen the physical pain associated with it?

It’s called rejection.

So many of us live our whole lives trying to avoid it. But we don’t even really understand what it is.

Psychologists define rejection as the act of pushing something or someone away.

So if a romantic prospect turns down a second date, if you don’t get a job you applied for, if you’re trying to develop new business and the prospect says no – those are obvious forms of rejection.

But why is it so painful?

The answer lies in our evolutionary history. Humans are a social species. Evolutionarily speaking, we evolved in small groups where we needed the cooperation of group members to survive. To put it really simply: If your fellow group members rejected you, you were more likely to actually die.

That’s why when you experience rejection, it feels like you’re going to die. That’s because your primitive brain actually thinks that is what will literally happen.

People who feel the emotion of rejection regularly sleep worse, have poorer immune system function, and report overall lower health outcomes.

So we need to learn to deal with it if we’re going to survive – much less take any risks or chances in life. If you want to apply for a better job, bring new business into your firm, or take on a leadership role in your organization, you’re going to have to be able to cope with the potential for rejection.

I teach my clients that there are two types of rejection:

  1. Actual rejection, where you have asked for something and you’ve been told no. For example, you apply for a job and don’t get it. You ask someone for their business and they say no. You ask someone on a second date and they decline.
  2. Imagined rejection, where you interpret or read into other people’s words or behavior and make them mean you’re being personally rejected. For example, some colleagues go to lunch without inviting you, and interpret it to mean that they don’t like you. You get a lot of edits on an assignment, and you interpret it to mean that you’re doing a bad job. You pitch a potential client and they say they have to think about it, and you interpret it to mean they don’t like you and you’ve failed.

In either case, dealing with rejection involves changing the way you think about it and what you make it mean. But there are different strategies depending on which type of rejection you’re experiencing.

When you are experiencing a true rejection, you still want to keep an eye on what you are making it MEAN. Let’s say you apply for a job and you hear back that “we had a lot of qualified applicants and we went with an internal hire.” Now, you might feel disappointed because you were interested in the job. But if you feel ashamed or depressed or devastated, it’s likely that you’re making it mean something about you. You’re taking it as a personal rejection of what you have to offer, and as a verdict on your worthiness. When really, it’s just someone saying “no thank you.”

They might have a million reasons for hiring internally, even if you were the most qualified applicant in the world. Same thing in your personal life – if you ask someone out and they say no, it’s easy to make it mean “I’m not attractive enough.” But the truth is you have no idea why they are saying no. Maybe they are in love with their ex. Maybe they don’t date. Maybe you remind them of their third grade teacher. If you simply reframe it as them saying “No thank you” for reasons you can’t control or know, it’s less painful.

Manging your mind about perceived rejections should follow a similar pattern. In this case, the “no thank you” isn’t the right approach because often the person isn’t actually saying no to you at all, and what they are doing or saying has nothing to do with you in reality.  First, you have to ask yourself what you’re making it mean about you. If your colleagues go to lunch without you, are you making it mean that they don’t like you?

If someone on your team sends an email thanking some of the team members but doesn’t mention you, are you making it mean that they don’t value your work and your contributions or that you aren’t valuable to the team? Unless they are literally saying “no” to something you asked them to do or give you, it’s an imagined rejection and you have to figure out what you’re making it mean about you.

Once you know what you’re reading into it, how you are perceiving it was rejection, you can work on reframing your thoughts. One of my favorite ways to do that is to list at least 5 reasons the person might have said or done the thing that have nothing to do with you. Read them over and see how they feel – I can guarantee they will feel better than your original rejection-laden thought.

Whatever kind of rejection you’re experiencing, it’s a two step process. 1. Separate the facts from your interpretation of them. 2. Reframe your interpretation – whether as a “no thank you” or by recognizing the many reasons someone might have acted a certain way that were not about you.

Lawyers tend to be subconsciously on the defensive and to interpret everything other people say or do as being said or done AT us. But with practice you can learn to handle real rejection more easily and to stop seeing imagined rejection where it doesn’t exist.


Kara Loewentheil, J.D., C.M.C., is a former litigator and academic who now runs a boutique life coaching practice for law students and lawyers. As a Master Coach, Kara is intimately acquainted with the unique challenges lawyers face in their professional careers and personal lives. Kara teaches her clients cognitive-based techniques for dealing with stress, anxiety, and lawyer brain so that they can build the lives and careers they want. She is also the host of the only podcast that teaches lawyers concrete solutions to their unique lawyer problems, The Lawyer Stress Solution, available on iTunes. To download a free guide to taming your anxious lawyer brain, go to

This post first appeared on Above the Law.